What a perfect opportunity to publish an interview with Ronald Wright.
With the resumption of worldwide travel Fiji has once more become a favored South Pacific destination. The recent re-publication of his masterpiece, On Fiji Islands by Eland Books, our interview with Ronald Wright could not have come at a better time.
Wright, a Canadian with English roots, is a travel writer in the classic British mold. Think Morris, Chatwin, Durrell, or Greene. His prose is unpretentious, elegant, and infused with spirit of place.
As a reviewer in the Washington Post aptly put it back in 1986, Wright is “open-eyed without being naïve.” He is comfortable with whomever he meets and he’s good at snatching insight from the ether.
Whether it’s a conversation about race relations with female patrons at a nightclub or a discussion of the nuances of drinking kava, he reveals the complex shades of Fiji’s pluralistic culture.
Of course, the Fiji of the 1980s is different from the Fiji of today.
Nowadays the islanders are tethered to their “mobiles” like the rest of us and the impact of social media is pervasive.
Popular culture notwithstanding, I don’t believe the character of Fiji’s people has changed. The same deep forces that animated the cultural, political and psychic landscape back in the day are still present in the 21st Century.
That’s why this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Fiji.
With this in mind, I think you’ll enjoy hearing what he has to say.
Q: Very few serious writers have tackled Fiji. It’s never been as chic a literary topic as say, French Polynesia. What initially got you interested in Fiji?
I’d recently spent a couple of years in Peru, which led to my first book Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in Peru (New York: Viking Penguin 1984), in which wrote about how the Spanish conquest of the Inca civilization in the 16th century caused massive social destruction from which Peru has yet to recover. The ethnic conflict between the descendants of conquered and conquerors was (and is) still being played out –in politics, culture, even guerrilla wars.
I was looking for a topic for a second book, and a friend of mine had just come back from Fiji, where he’d been living in the hill country of Viti Levu, working as an archaeologist. In On Fiji Islands I call him “Derek” but I know he won’t mind me revealing that his real name is J. Rod Vickers. I became fascinated by Rod’s tales of Fiji, especially by how different the colonial experience had been there, and how the indigenous Fijians had kept communal ownership of their land. I wanted to see this for myself, and Rod agreed to go back with me for part of the trip and show me around.
Q: How did the work, On Fiji Islands, evolve?
In any literary travel book the journey is the “plot.” The book arose from my experiences on the road and in the field, plus meetings with experts and archival research. The trick was to be open to going anywhere at any time, and then to shape the journey into a narrative. It was also important for me to range back and forth in time, to understand the present day as the cutting edge of forces from the past.
Q: The acknowledgements page in your book reads like a who’s who of Fiji in the 1980s. People like Ratu George Cakobau, Fergus Clunie, Paul Geraghty, etc. How did you come to meet them?
My first contact, after Rod, was with Fergus Clunie, at that time director of the Fiji Museum in Suva. Fergus was very generous with his time and helpful with advice and introductions. I think it was Fergus who introduced me to Paul Geraghty, and it was Paul Geraghty and Tevita Nawadra who helped me visit Bau.
Q: How much time did you actually spend in Fiji?
If memory serves, it was about three months, with some later visits to follow things up.
Q: You really captured the Fijian sense of place and Fijian sensibilities. You also gained the confidence of your hosts. In my experience, Fijians generally don’t discuss “tevoro” and the like with outsiders. Can you talk about the relationships you developed with locals?
This again was mainly thanks to the entree I had through Rod. He had worked a long time in Nadrau (on an archaeological survey of land to be flooded by the Monasavu dam) and had become friends with the chief, Ratu Lemeki Natadra. When we went back there, we stayed with Ratu Lemeki and had many evenings of genial conversation with him and others around the tanoa.
Q: You must have read voraciously about Fiji beforehand. How long did it take to do the research?
I can’t remember how long the research took on its own. The whole book took a little over two years.
Q: You do a great job with dialogue. You must have taken copious notes at the time or did you spend your evenings recalling conversations? Or do you simply have a photographic memory?
My usual method for this sort of writing is to make notes of conversations immediately afterwards, while the content, colour, and memorable phrases are still fresh. With interviews, of course, I make notes on the spot and sometimes use tape as well.
Q: You itinerary was very atypical and off the beaten track compared to most visitors. Nadi, Suva, Nadrau Levuka, Rabi and Bau. Nobody I know ever trekked along the Sigatoka Valley much less visited Bau or Rabi. How did you come up with this game plan, or did the trip unfold organically?
It unfolded organically. After some time in Suva I went up to Nadrau with Rod and his friend Aseri who acted as our interpreter and mata ni vanua. From Bau we set off on the long hike across the hills and down the Sigatoka River, though I can’t remember if I’d planned that from the start or if it was suggested by Rod or Ratu Lemeki. The other trips resulted from meetings with helpful contacts, though of course I was very keen to see Bau, taking the opportunity when it arose.
Q: You’re a historian by training. What did you find particularly interesting about Fiji’s history?
This is an extended theme of the book, of course. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, what drew me to Fiji was the unusual form colonialism had taken there, and the way indigenous society came through nearly a century of foreign rule structurally intact, without severe loss of property, language, and culture. Unlike much of the world, where colonization by Europeans and Euro-Americans has left a legacy of social wreckage, Fiji has been able to rebuild on its ancient foundations. Having said that, I don’t mean to ignore or belittle the many political, economic, and ethnic problems that beset the nation now; but I think they are less difficult than in most parts of the post-colonial world.
Q: Compared to French Polynesia, Cooks, Solomons and some of the other South Pacific islands, Fiji emerged in a relatively healthy state from its colonial experience. Any thoughts on the impact British colonial experience on Fiji?
Yes, I agree with your take. Being British myself, I want to underline that the benign form of British rule in Fiji was largely an anomaly. Elsewhere –in much of Africa, India, and the Caribbean –it was a different story. Some of the credit for that goes deservedly to enlightened officials and governors in the early years, notably Thurston and Gordon. But much of it should also go to the Fijians themselves. Without their energy, toughness, and social cohesion, British settlers might have taken over the country as they did in New Zealand and Australia –and as Americans did in Hawaii. The Maori wars that resulted in New Zealand were also a factor: stopping the British from pushing their luck in Fiji.
Q: Anything else you care to comment on about the book?
Answer: I think it is very instructive to compare what happened in Fiji and Hawaii. Both island groups were about the same size, both had similar indigenous culture and institutions, and both had populations that were extremely vulnerable to introduced plagues such as smallpox, influenza, and measles. Both suffered severe population decline in the 19th century because of disease. But disease itself is only part of the story. It was the combination of disease and dispossession by a massive settler inflow that made all the difference between these island groups. Because the Fijians kept most of their land, they were able to weather the onslaught and eventually rebuild their numbers and regain political autonomy. But in Hawaii, where most of the people were driven off their lands, the native population is only a small remnant today, vastly outnumbered by the descendants of so-called “settlers” from outside. As in North America, “settlers” really meant “invaders.” This is what makes Fiji’s history so important. Fiji is a test case, showing that the dispossession– and in the worst cases genocide –that happened elsewhere was not an inevitable consequence of guns and germs. Given a less rapacious colonial experience, the modern world could have been a very different place.
About the Author
Historian, novelist, and essayist Ronald Wright is the award-winning author of nine books of nonfiction and fiction published in 16 languages and more than 50 countries. As this interview with Wright reflects, much of his work explores the relationships between past and present, peoples and power, other cultures and our own.
©2022 Ronald Wright
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